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May 31, 2007 - Article

This is the first issue of PHONE+ since the massacre at Virginia Tech — some 45 days after the event. I point this out on purpose because the monthly magazine cycle stands in sharp contrast to electronic journalism. But even TV and online dailies are no match for the “youwitness” variety that characterized the most recent campus tragedy.

TIME magazine (the hard copy version I like to read on Sunday mornings) recounted some of the first-person coverage:

  • A graduate student used his camera phone to film police drawing guns near Norris Hall as he ran toward the scene. The video tape was uploaded to
  • Students posted news on Facebook.
  • Students shared details of the shooter’s writing assignments on
  • The shooter’s own “famous last words” delivered to NBC News included 27 QuickTime videos a la YouTube.

As a journalist, I have mixed feelings about this emerging trend. On the one hand, it’s immediate and unvarnished. But on the other hand, it’s immediate and unvarnished. Context and fact checking are nowhere to be found. (In the Virgina Tech case, death and survival reports posted online by “insiders” later proved false.)

As a technology journalist, I am fascinated by the apparent impact that Web 2.0 is having on the way we respond to and experience events — even tragedies. This is particularly true of the MySpace Generation — those with no pre-Internet experience — that are typical of the students at Virginia Tech and most colleges and certainly all U.S. high schools.

Web 2.0 describes tangible advances in the applications we use and how we use them. Analysts at Forrester Research define Web 2.0 as: A set of technologies and applications that enable efficient interaction among people, content and data in support of collectively fostering new businesses, technology offerings and social structures.

One aspect of this, of course, is the social networking of the always-on generation. But it’s not just a way to hook up or share music files. It’s a new order in the way we work. Forrester analysts describe Web 2.0 as having two parts — social computing and information workplace.

To thrive in an era of social computing, Forrester researchers say “companies must abandon top-down management and communication tactics, weave communities into their products and services, use employees and partners as marketers, and become part of a living fabric of brand loyalists.”

The “information workplace” is the digital workplace of the future, they say, explaining this is characterized by a seamless, guided, visual, role-based, contextual and multimodal work experience. Say what? I think the definition is purposefully vague so as to allow it to encompass an assortment of technologies, present and future, that will enable a social computing environment.

This is not a hypothetical scenario. One of the largest companies in the technology world, Cisco Systems Inc., is restructuring around the principles of social networking by delivering the technologies that enable this form of collaboration. Chairman and CEO John Chambers says tools like unified communications and TelePresence will drive the next wave in productivity. “It opens up almost unlimited opportunities for us,” Chambers says.

And, for channel partners. VARs, systems integrators and agents are going to be on the frontlines evangelizing and teaching companies about this transformation — how to profit from it and how to enable it. As the graduates of Virginia Tech and other universities make their way into the workforce, the indoctrination will be less (if not un-) necessary.

As the power shifts to the people, to the user, many unyielding institutions may be brought to their knees — closed systems makers are high on that list. So too, might be the press. So while I think there always will be a call for the filter a journalist provides, the era of user-generated content is forever changing how we define ourselves, our sources and our readers — the lines between which are growing fainter by the day.


group editor

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